Assembly Election: Kerala

LDF confident of second innings in Kerala

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with State BJP president K. Surendran at a function in Tripunithura held in connection with his Statewide ‘Vijay Yatra’, on February 28. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

A worker puts up an LDF election campaign banner featuring Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in Kochi on March 5. Photo: PTI

Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala with (from left) P.K. Kunhalikutty of the IUML, Congress leaders K.C. Venugopal, Mullappally Ramachandran and Oommen Chandy during the release of the UDF election logo, in Thiruvananthapuram on March 3. Photo: MAHINSHA S.

Bolstered by the resounding victory in the local body elections, and with the UDF in disarray, the ruling Left Democratic Front exudes hope of securing a second consecutive term in office.

No ruling party or coalition has won the mandate for a second successive term in office in Kerala, except once in 1977, and the State is well known for alternating its preference between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) coalitions.

Yet, the ruling LDF led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, confident of its development accomplishments and governance record of the past five years—achieved under trying circumstances—has picked a bold and confident slogan for the upcoming Assembly election: ‘It will be the LDF, for sure.’

The coalition’s confidence is not just an expression of hope; it arises from the decisive victory it tasted in the local body elections held in December. Despite the allegations of corruption and charges of nepotism levelled by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the government, the people of Kerala gave the LDF a thumping victory, which was widely seen as a reward for the positive impact of the government on everyday life.

The results of the local body elections were also a reminder to the opposition parties that they needed to reorient their strategies to make a mark in the Assembly election, since the State government’s performance in handling challenges such as the Okhi cyclone, two devastating floods that came a year apart and the threat of the Nipah and COVID-19 viruses, had stood it in good stead.

The government was also lauded for the series of welfare measures it implemented during the pandemic and during the time of the deep economic distress that followed.

UDF’s hopes

The UDF’s election hopes, however, stem from its reassuring performance in the Lok Sabha election in 2019 under comparable circumstances; eventhen , the LDF government seemed to have a lot going for itself and its performance graph was as good as it is now. The UDF made a game-changing election-eve manoeuvre by fielding the Congress’ undeclared prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad. Then, by choosing the other candidates with care and avoiding infighting to a large extent, it rode an anti-Narendra Modi wave created by Rahul Gandhi’s candidature to win 19 out of 20 seats in the State, where the Christian and Muslim minority communities together account for nearly 45 per cent of the population.

However, for the upcoming election, the anti-Modi factor is unlikely to be strong enough to drive minority votes to the Congress fold. In the last week of February, Rahul Gandhi still drew crowds as he met his voters in Wayanad and addressed an election rally in Thiruvananthapuram, where he attacked the LDF government. He also drew attention mixed with curiosity as he undertook journeys off the coast of Kollam, jumping into the sea with fisherfolk on one occasion—to learn the ropes, as it were—even as Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala raised allegations of corruption in an agreement for deep-sea trawling signed by a government department with a United States-based company. It even led Pinarayi Vijayan to make a cryptic comment: “We thank Rahul Gandhi for showing such keen interest in Kerala.”

Also read: Stiglitz tells Kerala to go its own way in development strategy

However, with just over a month left for voting at the time of filing this report, the Congress was yet to reveal if indeed it had a trump card or if it would just keep bombarding the government with a volley of allegations.

Immediately after the local body election debacle, a shocked Congress leadership intervened at the request of UDF coalition partners, bringing in former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to lead the party’s election campaign committee, ensuring that all the top leaders worked together, and directing the high command’s representatives to visit each district and ensure that grass-roots workers worked for the party rather than for groups within it.

However, the biggest test of this newly-forged unity will be the candidate selection process , an ongoing exercise fraught with dangers that the Congress usually surmounts only after suffering debilitating effects.

Winning new allies

Meanwhile, the LDF has been doing its homework well after its Lok Sabha election disaster, with the CPI(M), unlike earlier, eagerly welcoming the smaller parties and factions that drifted away from the UDF into its fold, making its coalition a 11-party cohesive formation under a strong leader, with hardly any dissension among its partners.

Small parties and even a small change in their allegiances can tilt the balance in Kerala politics. The new entrants in the LDF include two former allies of the Congress, the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD) and the Kerala Congress faction led by Jose K. Mani. The inclusion of the two parties in the LDF had reduced the UDF to a weakened alliance of nine parties. Also, with the exit of the Kerala Congress (Jose K. Mani faction), the Congress remained the only UDF party of some clout in central Kerala, the State’s minority Christian heartland and, for long, a UDF stronghold.

Also read: Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government launches a welfare fund for farmers

In the local body elections, although the LDF had registered good performances in the southern and northern districts, some of the significant gains were made in the central districts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Idukki, where the UDF traditionally had the upper hand.

New calculations in central Kerala

The UDF suffered serious setbacks even in areas that were the fiefdoms of top Congress leaders Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala. The splinter Kerala Congress (P.J. Joseph) group, which still remains in the UDF, suffered defeats even in Joseph’s strongholds in Idukki district, especially in Thodupuzha municipality, his home turf. The battle for central Kerala this time will, therefore, be of much significance for the State’s politics, as the BJP too has been actively wooing the leaders of various Christian denominations, raising the bogey of the Muslim League dominating the affairs of the UDF and a weakened Congress being able to play only second fiddle in any future UDF administration.

In the local body elections, the UDF managed to salvage some prestige only in the Muslim League strongholds in northern Kerala, where it reportedly chose to enter into a controversial ‘secret’ understanding with the Welfare Party, the political wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a Muslim organisation. This ‘secret’ pact led to an open fight within the Congress itself and the BJP tried to exploit it to its advantage all over the State.

Also read: Traditional UDF strongholds see unprecedented gains for the LDF

As a political commentator said recently, the BJP, which had so far been trying to create a “Hindu-non-Hindu divide” to gain a foothold in the State, may well be trying to engineer a “Muslim-non-Muslim division” now to change the bipolar nature of the State’s politics.

BJP’s moves

K. Surendran, BJP State president, has repeatedly emphasised at every other meeting that the Congress is a “spent force in Kerala” and that the “real battle this time” was between the CPI (M) and the BJP, even as his party colleagues have been holding meetings with church leaders and inviting some of them for a consultation with the Prime Minister.

The BJP had for long remained on the margins of electoral politics in the State, but over the past few elections, it has extended the nature and scope of its lonely challenge from a few pockets in some districts to almost all districts of the State, and reaped the rewards by making good use of the weaknesses of existing coalitions.

The idea of a weakening Congress in Kerala is a heady aspiration for the party that rules the country. In this election, it is not just stating that it will become a strong force, but, perhaps rather too ambitiously, claiming “a victory in Kerala”, as Surendran declared recently at the launch of his ‘Vijay Yatra’ election rally from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram.

Yet, despite its growth in the State, the party could win only a single seat in the Assembly election in 2016, when O. Rajagopal won from the Nemom constituency, a victory the LDF later alleged was the result of an “unholy alliance” with the Congress.

There is no guarantee that the BJP will retain the seat in this election, or win a couple more, what with some prominent personalities like the technocrat E. Sreedharan, former chairman of the Delhi Metro Corporation, joining the party and likely to find a place in its candidate list.

Also read: ‘I want to bolster the BJP’s chances of coming to power in Kerala’, says ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan on his decision to join the party

Significantly, what the local body elections revealed was the terribly weakened party structure of the Congress, and its inevitable dependence on the limited but critical strengths of its smaller regional allies such as the Muslim League for survival against the LDF. Pinarayi Vijayan had been stating for some time now that the Congress has been adopting positions “quite similar to that of the BJP”, which has made it “difficult for people to differentiate between the Congress and the BJP”.

In the context of the April 6 Assembly election in Kerala, the presence of an aggressive BJP leaves little room for complacency for the two traditional Fronts in the State. It is a critical battle for both the Congress and the CPI(M), as they take on each other and fight their common enemy in this election.

In the 2016 Assembly election, the LDF won 91 of the 140 seats, the UDF 47 seats and the BJP one. P.C. George, a controversial crusader-politician prone to switching loyalties, won the Poonjar seat in central Kerala as an independent candidate defeating candidates of all the three Fronts and 15 other independents for a historic victory.

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